It’s not often that I hear a song and want to change the world. Let’s face it, popular music rarely elicits that strong of a reaction. But for the last two weeks, I’ve been listening to an advanced copy of “Remittances” by Power Struggle – the two producer/one MC dynamic based in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I actually felt more aware, more motivated. Set against a musical culture that glorifies luxury, the record tells stories of the working class, the immigrants, the lovers, and the revolutionaries. It is a far cry from what I had on rotation; it’s emotional, funky, analytical, and soulful. It reflects the nomadic past and community-oriented present of front man Nomi, who I had a chance to interview.
Where does "conscious hip hop" or "raptivism" fit in today's music world? Do you feel that it has a place in mainstream hip hop?
Hip-Hop originally began as a political statement against the racial and political inequalities in the brown and black ghettos of NYC. It’s only been in the past 5-10 years that the genre has been hijacked by commercial/mainstream interests that have been successful in steering the culture further and further away from its roots. It seems like we are forgetting that hip-hop was (and is) a platform for poor youth of color to voice their issues. "Consciousness" will always have a place in hip-hop... the real question is, will hip-hop always have a place in mainstream culture. We live in a culture-vulture society that likes to steal and copy other cultures without giving the proper credit to its creator. At some point the mainstream or major labels will realize that they have no further use of the culture and they'll drop it for the next new genre.
So with that, what are the challenges you face (as a ‘raptivist’) in order to stay in the game? In the song “Sunshine”, you yourself say “political rap is like a trap sometimes”.
We're often regarded as not making party music that people just want to get loose to. A lot of "conscious" rappers do become one dimensional with their style, content and presentation. And to some listeners the music becomes redundant. The challenge to getting more appeal from the listeners is to make it funky and versatile. I think Blue Scholars are a good example of political rap breaking out of the "trap". Deep lyrics, fun beats. The other difficult thing about being a 'raptivist' is that we are competing against an extremely powerful music industry that promotes and propagates superficial things like wealth and luxury, while also encouraging murder in poor communities. When you turn on MTV or listen to the top 40 radio stations, all you hear is one big advertisement for products that the average working-class person can’t afford. At least in the 1990's, when gangsta rappers talked about murder in the streets, they gave a better analysis as to why gangs and violence existed. Nowadays all you hear is kill, kill, kill - with little explanation of the conditions that create violence in the hood.
You were born in Nigeria, raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then made your way to San Francisco by way of Brooklyn and the Philippines. Why all the traveling? And how has your nomadic past made you into the artist you are today?
I'm an immigrant whose family moved around in pursuit of better opportunities and better living conditions. I'm a Sagittarius, so by cosmic design I didn't have a choice. The number one thing that traveling has taught me is that humans are guided by two things, love and money. The road has also shown me that no matter where you are, there are the exploited and the exploiters, working class folks are pretty much the same no matter what part of the globe you're in.
Did your traveling inspire songs such as "Traveling Man" and "Mr. Sagittarius"?
Yes of course. Those songs were also inspired by my admiration of American folk music. I'm a huge fan of artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Billy Brag, Roma de Luna, Iron and Wine. A lot of hip-hop artists might think that folk is boring, but folk music has a hypnotic way of telling stories. It’s usually calm and relaxing. I guess that's what we were trying to accomplish with "Traveling Man" and "Mr. Sagittarius".
We as in you, Mister REY and Fatgums. How did the three of you come together?
Like most things in my life, the formation of Power Struggle was unintentional. I met Mister REY through local San Francisco community work; he made beats and opened up his studio to me on Saturday mornings while the rest of the rap world was getting over their Patron and Henny hangovers. He's a very soulful dude, like the full Filipino version of Joe Bataan. Gums and I just had a real natural musical connection. I haven't known him for very long but I consider him a very good homey. I get a lot of beat CDs from producers that are trying to get their name out. Most of it is garbage, but when Gums gave me the Counterparts sampler, I was truly impressed. In the current electronic era, Gums brings back soul.
Prior to you teaming up with Mister REY and Fatgums as Power Struggle, you were in Kill the Vultures and Oddjobs. What were the musical differences between the three groups?
Oddjobs was the first group that I was in. We were your basic backpacker hip-hop group, we had a lot of white fans - so I guess you could say we made it. Kill the Vultures became what was left after Oddjobs split. Kill the Vultures was like atmosphere on heroin (musically). Power Struggle was a cultural/racial/political awaking...I’ll leave it at that.
Your first record as Power Struggle was “Hearts and Minds” (released in 2008). Explain your evolution to “Remittances”.
The more I got involved in social justice work, the sharper my political analysis became. You can hear the difference in the two records. When I made "Hearts and Minds", my views on economy, government, immigration, war, the Illuminati (just kidding) were really broad. I didn't have a proper framework to apply to the things I felt were problematic in our world. Musically, "Hearts and Minds" was made with producers east of the Mississippi river. Detalx is from NY and Ben Zilla from Minneapolis. I think it was difficult to come up with something organic when you're thousands of miles away from each other. "Remittances" was much more natural since I lived with Mister REY and since and Gums and I were in constant communication. Also, "Hearts and Minds" didn't have an executive producer to make sure everything was really sounding good. Fatgums really stepped up, and tightened all the loose ends, to make this a great record.
Has there been a defining moment in your career that made you truly focus on the people and their struggle?
In 2007, I had the opportunity to go on a second European tour with Kill the Vultures, or go on an exposure trip to the Philippines. The exposure trip was put together by a Filipino youth org called ALAY. The purpose was to educate folks on the concrete social-political conditions in the Philippines, and to learn about how people were organizing to address different issues like poverty, corruption, human rights violations, militarization, U.S. semi colonialism, etc. After my exposure trip I realized that I wanted to commit my artistic talent to exposing the contradictions that kept the Philippines on a third world status.
What kind of community work do you do in San Francisco?
At the Filipino Community Center (FCC), I work on issues related to employment and workers rights. FCC is located in the Excelsior District that has the highest concentration on Pinoys in SF. Most of the people are working class folks, a lot of them are recent immigrants. A lot of the themes and stories from "Remittances" come directly from the lives of the people in our hood.
In "Inspired by a Dream", you explain the character of a revolutionary saying "Revolutionaries fight out of love for the people that they know and trust..." What is your favorite revolutionary story? Who is your favorite revolutionary?
I am inspired by all people who liberate themselves from colonialism, slavery, occupation...Mike "Dream" was an Oakland graffiti artist who got murdered in the streets in the late 90's. He was an amazing and talented artist that not only had crazy style and skill, but also connected his work to the race and class struggles of the people in Oakland. I was in high school when he was at the top of his game, I saw his pieces in a graffiti magazine and I was truly inspired - especially since he was Filipino. St. Paul, Minnesota didn't have too many role models for Filipino kids.
What are some of America's problems that you are particularly interested in changing? How about in the Philippines?
This could be a really long answer, but I'll keep it short and simple. I guess for now there are two things that I would like to bring to people’s attention. 1) The struggles of Filipino migrants all cross the world. I think people really need to understand what is happening inside the Philippines that force thousands of workers to leave the country daily. It's important to discuss the conditions that Filipino migrants face as domestic workers, caregivers, sex workers, etc. 2) I hope that Filipinos abroad will keep a closer key to what happening in regards to poverty, human rights, corruption, and militarization in the Philippines. I think Manny Pacquiao made it cool again to be Pinoy, now we have to take it a step further to not just be patriotic or nationalistic, but to also deepen our understanding to why we are a third world nation.
Your album drops today. What is next for Power Struggle?
Do as much as I can to support other Beatrock artists like Bambu, Counterparts, Otayo Dubb, and Bwan without selling my soul. I want Beatrock Music to become so successful that we get flooded with people’s demos.
What do you hope listeners will get from your music?
For Filipino Americans - a better sense of self, a better understanding of the situation in homeland, to reconnect to their roots beyond patriotic fashions and Manny Pacquiao knockouts. For the non-Filipino - 10 bucks for each record they buy [laughs].
Why have you called your album "Remittances"?
Globally, Filipinos send millions of dollars every year back to their families in the Philippines. Without these remittances the Philippine economy would crash. I chose the title "Remittances" to pay respect to all our proletarian kababayan (family) that sacrifice so much to provide for their families.
You mentioned you are into folk music. What other music are you listening to? Who are some of your favorite artists?
Iron and Wine, Billy Brag and Wilco, Shining Suns, Pet Shop Boyz, Woody Guthry, Blu. I'll tell you what I'm not listening to, oh wait, you'll have to wait for the next interview.
Maybe some of you can empathize, but listening to socially conscious music was always very difficult for me. Perhaps it was the execution; it needed to be funky and versatile as Nomi said. "Remittances" is an easy listen, all while being told stories of struggle and passion. The album drops today. Pick it up directly from Beatrock Music HERE. Break the mold, upset the setup, shift the paradigm, and listen to Nomi. Mixed with the production of Fatgums and Mister REY, you'll deifnitely be taken on a journey.